Published 3 November 1996 Style Magazine 174th article
Kiss for the bride: Michael Winner, right, with Duncan and Caroline Rawlinson (Vanessa Perry)
"Try a typical New Forest inn," suggested Peter Crome, managing director of Chewton Glen Hotel. "I'll go for lunch," I said. Peter called the Old Oak Inn and off we went. The New Forest roads were full of cyclists and hikers. The ponies and the deer well outnumbered. The Old Oak Inn was surrounded by helmeted people on benches, backpackers crammed the bar. I fled. We tried a few other so-called 16th-century inns, all equally besieged, then ended up in Bournemouth. A police car was parked ahead. "What's the best hotel?" I asked. "The Royal Bath, by reputation," replied Sergeant Alan Card. "I'll take you there." We followed him to the door of a seafront, old-style hotel.
"What's the SP?" asked the doorman. "Have you got a reservation?" "Just take care of the car, please," I replied tartly. It was quarter to two. A dark-suited man showed us to Oscar's, looking at his watch every second. It's a corridor-like restaurant overlooking trees and the road outside. It features a photo of Oscar Wilde, who supposedly used to go there. Wilde would have had a seizure at the sight of the wallpaper. He would not have adored the odd bamboo chairs, he'd have hated the tinkly Muzak. The menu, boasted chef Gerard Puigdellivol, offered you his fresh produce. It was one of the most awful meals I have ever eaten. Don't tell me food is getting better in England. No French or Italian "best hotel in town", in a place the size of Bournemouth, would dare offer anything like it.
Vanessa's cream of broccoli soup was so sweet even I found it impossible to take. She left most of it. I had tough, stringy parma ham and mushy figs. A small white loaf was unexceptional in the extreme. I went on to grey mullet presented with a roast-tomato coulis. It did not taste fresh - too long in deepfreeze or fridge. The tomato coulis was overpowering. Vanessa had cod fillet and potato mash with parsley and lemon sauce. Dull to awful. The restaurant manager, Andrew Morley, showed me his gourmet dinner menu. Flowery descriptions of dishes I would hate to have to eat. Opposite our narrow room were two large ones leading to some nice gardens. They were taken over by a wedding. I walked into the garden and saw people eating at tables. "Are they the wedding?" I asked. "No, that's the Agfa conference," said the waiter. I sneaked back to the gloom of Oscar's. There I had a millefeuille of chocolate filled with fresh cream and strawberries, served with its own coulis. Beyond belief horrid.
The staff were all very pleasant. A man with a badge appeared. "Mr lain Fleming, deputy general manager," I dictated into my tape. He greeted me, then left. "He wasn't happy," I said to Vanessa. "You were very rude to him," she replied. "He said 'Hello', you just read his badge onto the tape." She's right, I apologise, Mr Fleming. It's not your fault the food's dreary. The Royal Bath is owned by De Vere Hotels. They had their flag flying outside, next to the Agfa one and a Union Jack. If I see their name again. I shall walk in the other direction. They'll be delighted.
I decided to try the wedding. It was 3pm. People were coming in from the garden for lunch. The groom, Duncan Rawlinson, very smartly dressed, waited for his bride, Caroline. She was upstairs, had not been to the drinks bit, and was planning a big entrance. "Does it always happen like this?" I asked. "Sometimes," said a man with a video camera. "Remember when I last shot you?" He told me it was at the Thomas Goode party in Mayfair. Greatest mounds of caviare I've ever seen. Their marvellously eccentric boss, Alexander Riahi, gave it. Shortly after, he vanished. "You can't stand here," said Vanessa. I was at the top of the stairs where the bride was to make her dramatic appearance. "Why not?" I asked. "Oh well." I walked into the corridor where Duncan waited. Caroline and various gorgeously dressed relatives turned up. They seemed remarkably happy to have me in a photo. They were all in a terrific mood. Mind you, they hadn't eaten lunch yet. I kissed the bride and went to the front. My car had vanished. "It'll take 10 minutes to get it," said a doorman. "Why?" I asked. "Because it's up on the roof, and my colleague's gone to get someone else's and that's how long it'll take." It was, indeed. Still, I had the nightmare of lunch to keep me going. Who says it's nice to be beside the seaside?